Government's Freshwater Reforms Fail to Live up to Hype

The Government released the detail of its much promised freshwater reforms today. 

In short it's a good start, but fails to live up to the Government's transformational promises. It's going in the right direction, and is definitely a positive evolution from the current policy. But it doesn't go as far or as quickly as TOP would have liked.  

The main improvement over National's previous policy is that it will hopefully be better at maintaining what is left of our freshwater. However, it's not going to be the system change we need to really improve the rivers and lakes that have already been degraded.

Let's look at the key aspects of the policy, starting with the good news. 

Recognising Te Mana o Te Wai

First up it is great to see better recognition of Te Mana o Te Wai. This Māori concept recognises that the health of our society depends on the health of our water. Being able to gather mahinga kai will now be a compulsory value that must be provided for by all regional councils. The policy doesn’t go so far as truly devolving decision making to iwi Māori which many would have liked, but does provide for their input into decision making, having a seat at the decision making table for freshwater plans will be a big step forward.

The policy does not resolve iwi rights and interests in water, and as a result can’t ensure fair allocation of water or pollution - this has to be a priority going forward.

Stopping Water Quality Getting Worse

There is a ban on conversions to more intensive land use, like conversions to dairy and cutting down forest to grow grass, and a cap on fertiliser use. It’ll start putting a cap on cow numbers which is sorely needed.

The downside of this policy is that it penalises those farmers with lower intensive land use at the moment because they can't convert their land to other uses. Expect sheep/beef and foresters to be pissed off because they are effectively paying for two decades of excessive dairy through lower land prices. Think of it like this - the dairy industry has been on a two decade long party and instead of asking them to drink less, the Government is telling sheep and beef or foresters they have to stay sober. 

There will also be a cap on the use of nitrogen fertiliser. This is a big shift in policy - the previous Government was focussed on managing outcomes and letting farmers farm however they want. But this is a recognition that hasn't worked, so makes a start at controlling the inputs farms use.  

However, the cap level is high - only 20% of farms are above this level. Also there are backdoors farmers can slip through. Fertiliser is used to grow feed.  If a farmer can't use fertiliser to grow feed then they will buy in feed. The best case scenario is that they will buy in silage from another farm, in the worst case they will buy palm kernel from Indonesia. This will mean we still have too many cows for the land to handle (and too much pollution as a result). The Government will need to impose a more sophisticated and cap all imports of nitrogen, including feed.  

Government is Picking Some Low Hanging Fruit

Much of what’s been announced in the regulation of farming is low hanging fruit targeting the very worst of offenders, in the easiest to regulate circumstances - e.g. keeping cattle out of big streams on flat land, stopping intensive winter grazing of more than 50ha and even then allowing 20cm deep pugging over half the paddock.

In short this is a good start but means we will still see scenes of dairy cows standing in mud.

... But Enforcement Looks Shaky

The Government has deferred lots of decisions to regional councils.  Regional councils have very variable performance and arguably allowed the situation to get as bad as it is in the first place.

Lots of important water quality standards will be in the hands of Councils and them preparing non-regulatory ‘action plans’ - dissolved oxygen, deposited sediment, phosphorus (one of the nutrients that makes periphyton/slime grow). There are big questions over how communities will be able to contribute to action plans and hold councils accountable?  

This is why the likes of the Environmental Defence Society are calling for a Freshwater Commission to hold Regional Councils to account. 

Farm plans will be made compulsory.  Farm plans are awesome if they are written by someone who knows farms and the environment they sit in, and farmers who are on board. Unfortunately the majority of farm plans at the moment are written by fertiliser companies who have a vested interest in selling farmers more fertiliser.  We need a massive investment in tools and education to better understand the land, how we farm it, and how it interacts with our environment so the farm plans really do achieve the communities goals for water.  

The Big Cop Out

Let's finish up with the really bad news. The big change the Government initially proposed was much lower bottom lines for nitrogen. This is important because nitrogen leads to algae growth, which causes all sorts of problems. 

The Government has kicked for touch on this, saying they will delay the decision for a year. The Minister said he couldn’t move ahead without consensus, but this is a cop out. Lower nitrogen limits were supported by 13 out of 18 scientists on the Scientific Technical Advisory Group put together by Government. Science doesn’t do consensus, questioning and testing ideas is part of the scientific process and is healthy. Nitrogen standards get debated at every regional council plan hearing. Environmental groups have put hundreds of thousands into arguing that nitrogen standards and controls are needed. They will be sorely disappointed by today's announcement, and rightly so.